[10 November 2003]
Give the Fox network a minute and they’ll find something to promote. Anyone who watched a single inning of the World Series, or any Fox show broadcast since late August for that matter, is by now well aware that their new Sunday night sitcom Arrested Development is “funny,” “uproarious,” “one of the best new shows of the year” or, quite simply, “The best new show of the fall season.”
We know this thanks to the network’s relentless barrage of promos that featured gushing accolades from TV critics across the country. And we know that TV critics always tell the truth. Skin (deemed “provocative”) received similar advance trumpeting, but the buildup was all for naught for that just-cancelled series as viewers stayed away in droves.
But this time the hype is for real. Arrested Development truly is one of the best shows, new or otherwise, of the year: a laugh-out-loud, deeply quirky, and audacious series that has its own wacky agenda and dares to be delightfully different. There are few shows on network television right now that come close to matching Arrested‘s absurdist satire or twisted view of family crises. That the show mines its laughs by taking potshots at the filthy rich makes it so much more delicious.
Created and written by TV vet Mitchell Hurwitz (The Golden Girls, The Ellen Show) and executive-produced by Ron Howard and Brian Glazer (Howard’s soothing voice-over narration gives this acid-laced comedy a folksy center), Arrested Development introduces us to the Bluth family, the type of upper crust, ultra-privileged family with flaws of Shakespearean proportions. Perhaps unfairly compared to Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, whose children were failed prodigies seething with bitterness and disappointment, the Bluths share none of the Tenenbaums’ pretensions. There are no deep psychological motivations at work. With the exception of son Michael (Jason Bateman), the Bluth offspring are lazy freeloaders who literally have not worked a day in their lives and who use the family’s company credit card to finance their extravagant habits.
The first episode finds the family gathered on a rented yacht for the retirement party of patriarch George Bluth (the incomparable Jeffrey Tambor), who made a fortune in the tract home development business. Michael has worked closely with his father for years and fully expects to be given the reins of the company. This prospect doesn’t sit well with the rest of the family, as Michael announces that his first act as CEO would be to strip them of their credit cards. When he is passed over in favor of his mother Lucille (Jessica Walter), an acerbic lush with ice water and vodka coursing through her veins, Michael washes his hands of the family and accepts a job working for a rival developer in Arizona. He now wants only to create a “normal” life for himself and his 13-year-old son George Michael (Michael Cera).
But things don’t turn out as expected: federal agents crash the party and George is arrested for “defrauding investors and using the company as his personal piggy bank,” as the evening news report puts it. The Bluths are typically blasé at the prospect of George heading to jail and only go into a tailspin when they realize that the family assets have been frozen and they are, temporarily, penniless.
It’s at this point that the family realizes they need Michael, the only sane member of this seriously dysfunctional clan, to pull them out of this mess. It’s easy to see why. Oldest son George Oscar Bluth II (George Arnett), who goes by the name of Gob (pronounced “Job,” as in the Bible), is a two-bit “illusionist” seething with anger, while youngest son Buster (Tony Hale) is a professional graduate student who takes courses in subjects like Native American chants and 17th-century cartography. Rounding out the clan is Michael’s twin sister Lindsay (Portia de Rossi), a vain socialite who specializes in hosting fundraisers with her sexually ambiguous husband Tobias (the hilarious David Cross), a disgraced doctor now pursuing a career as an actor.
Shot with a shaky single camera and presented without a laugh track, Arrested Development recalls Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries, in that you come to know the characters very well. This sense of intimacy keeps over-the-top situations from degenerating into broad sketch comedy. With its caustic wit and dialogue written for adults, Arrested Development combines the sophistication of Sex and the City with the peculiar humor of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Everyone, particularly Bateman, is more than up to the task. As Bateman told Entertainment Weekly, “It’s film comic acting as opposed to campy, high-jinxy sitcom crap” (12 September 2003). And he should know. Arrested Development represents a welcome return to form for this likable actor, whose resume unfortunately includes The Hogan Family (1988) and the lamentable Will & Grace rip-off, Some of My Best Friends (2001). As Michael, he represents the Bluths’ moral center and their only salvation, and his slow burns are as funny as any one-liner. Also excellent, Walter gives Lucille a sublime spin. With her Nancy Reagan-like arrogance and pomposity, she fiercely lampoons every TV socialite wife. Yet typical of the sweet/sour spin Hurwitz gives all of these characters, there is also something sad about her: she has had everything, yet has nothing.
Of course, Michael agrees to stay and help the Bluths get back on their feet, because deep in this show’s acidic heart is a lesson about the value of family. Arrested Development shows how, even as adults, we’re defined by our families, no matter how far away we move or how screwy they may be. This, of course, is the premise of half the comedies on TV, but with the exception of Malcolm In the Middle, none explore it in such gleefully twisted ways as Arrested Development.
Whether TV audiences will warm to this cold-hearted family remains to be seen, and the Fox network has a history of pulling the plug early on promising series that step just out of the mainstream (The Tick and Andy Richter Controls The Universe come to mind). Even series creator Hurwitz is uncertain of the show’s mass appeal. “I definitely wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t work,” he told EW. “I would be surprised if it does. I believe if people watch it they will return to it. But I don’t have faith.”
If that sounds pessimistic, it’s because Hurwitz has been down this road before. His 1999 series Everything’s Relative, about a comedy writer and his wacky family (Tambor played the writer), shared Arrested‘s sarcasm and oddball characters and was cancelled after three episodes. Arrested is a more original series, satirizing both the traditional family unit and the lifestyles of the rich and demented, two aspects that put it in the same league as the classic ABC sitcom Soap.
Like the Tates and Campbells of Soap, or the Bundys of Married With Children, the Bluths offer a refreshing alternative to the squeaky clean families that litter the TV landscape. The Bluths, even in their broad strokes, are convincing and endearing. Arrested Development is not afraid to play the darker side of family life for big laughs. Michael is the sane everyman in the center of a bizarre family he can’t escape. By accepting his fate as the family savior, Michael has resigned himself to descend further into his weird family’s dynamic and we go with him for what promises to be a hilarious ride. It’s like George Bernard Shaw once said: “If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”